DNC exposes US labour pains

Union leaders gather away from Democratic convention to voice concerns over what they see as diminishing labour rights.

Southern Workers Assembly speaker
The Southern Workers Assembly was meant to draw attention to anti-union laws in many US states [Al Jazeera]

As tens of thousands of Democratic faithful stormed into shiny uptown Charlotte, North Carolina, on Monday, a very different kind of gathering was taking place on the other side of town at Wedgewood Baptist Church.

Away from the roar of the Democratic National Convention, where supporters of President Barack Obama were coming together to push for another four years in power, organised labour leaders from across the US South had gathered to muster up the diminished power their movement still retains.

The Southern Workers Assembly, a meeting of hundreds of workers and officials, representing dozens of local unions from seven southern US states, was timed as a protest against the choice of North Carolina, the least unionised state in the US, as a summit site for the Democrats, a party with deep ties to the American labour movement.

At least one major US union, the United Mineworkers of America, had already dropped its endorsement in the presidential election. The president of the American Federation of Labor has said the organisation would not devote any resources to the convention in Charlotte. 

 Fault Lines – The decline of labour unions in the US

According to the organisers, the Southern union assembly was also meant to draw attention to what they consider a strong, state-led trend against collective bargaining, outdated anti-union legislation and a widening gap between rich and poor.

“Workers in the South need unions and the region has been a battleground for years. This represents a lot of local unions coming together to create a social movement aimed at changing laws that were put in the way of workers’ rights,” Jim Wrenn, secretary-treasurer of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers Union of America (UE), ­­and a veteran labour leader, told Al Jazeera.

The goals of the group notwithstanding, the event and its timing have highlighted growing dissatisfaction within the American labour movement, a trend that seems certain to be a challenge to the next president.

Anti-labour sentiment

A large sign outside the brick-built Wedgewood Baptist Church reads “Discrimination is sin”. The words spoken inside, at the Southern Workers Assembly, were no less fiery.

Donna Morgan, 57, a red-haired disability examiner and president of the UE-WVPW in Charleston, West Virginia, began her speech by pounding the table and saying, “I’m mad and I’m not going to take it anymore”.

“In this country, and now with what has happened in Wisconsin, states are moving to destroy unions. The South is a critical place for this fight because the South has never been able to get strong unions. State governments and big business have been keeping us down,” Morgan said, referring to the move earlier this year by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker to curtail the collective bargaining rights of public employees.

“It has become a country of haves and have-nots. The gap between rich and poor is getting greater and there will be more unrest in this country unless our leaders start listening and paying attention to the poor people.”

US unions struggle in low-wage southern states

Each union leader who took the podium referred to an unprecedented level of anti-labour sentiment in the US, and a trend of adopting, strengthening and maintaining union-busting state laws.

“Part of the reason the South remains mired in poverty, discrimination and low wages is the laws that restrict and oppose workers from unionising,” said Dianne Mathiowetz, 66, a retired automaker from Atlanta, Georgia. “It’s not only about unions: it’s about workers’ right to organise in their own interests.”

Like most leaders at the assembly, Tom Anderson, 42, president of Communication Workers of America Local 3865 in Knoxville, Tennessee, had advice for Obama. “[I would tell him] you have to support unions across the board, public and private. He’s has got to give public-sector unions formal recognition at the federal level.”

If not, Anderson said, the consequences could be severe. “If you take away their seat from the [negotiating] table, the worker has to have his voice heard in other ways, civil disobedience, whatever it takes,” he said. “We are really talking about what kind of country we’re going to have going forward. You hear that on the news, but it’s real on the ground for us as workers.”

‘Under attack’

I’m here to show them unions aren’t evil. We’re working for workers’ rights and benefits and job security.

– Matthew Pichler

The dissatisfaction voiced by organised labour was hardly contained to southerners at this year’s Democratic conference.

At the convention center on Monday, Wisconsin delegate Matthew Pichler wore a button that read “Proud to be a union thug”.

“In Wisconsin we were having protests after [Walker] busted the unions and someone from the right called us ‘union thugs’. We’ve now embraced it and proud of it,” said Pichler, 29, a student at Milwaukee Area Technical College and a union member.

Coming from the frontlines of the US labor dispute, Pichler put his perspective in no uncertain terms. “We’re under attack. The right is trying to kill the union movement to cripple the Democratic Party. I’m here to show them unions aren’t evil. We’re working for workers’ rights and benefits and job security.”

Delegate Andy Bock, 51, a member of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees in Ames, Iowa, said unions are the target of “highly financed PR companies that paint unions as the cause of the economic downturn”.

The end of unions in the US, in Bock’s opinion, would mean the end of the American middle class.

Back at Wedgewood Baptist, Saladin Muhammad, the organiser of the Southern Workers Assembly, looked around the church at the end of the event and offered some advice for the presidential candidates.

“They need to know that working people in the southern states are dissatisfied with policies and laws that both parties have in regards to workers,” he told Al Jazeera. “We can see that we have to build our own movement and fight for it ourselves.”

Source: Al Jazeera